Books: Cultural Amnesia — Marc Bloch |
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Marc Bloch was born in 1886, fought in World War I, established himself as one of France’s leading historians between the wars, and took up arms again as a Resistance fighter in World War II. He was caught, tortured and executed in 1944. His last, brief book, written while he was already in some danger (“The circumstances of my present life, the impossibility of reaching any large library, and the loss of my own books have made me dependent on my notes and upon memory”), is easily available in English as The Historian’s Craft (1953). His more scholarly books, foundation stones in the Annales school of history, are for specialists, but his incidental commentary, like his life, is for everyone. There is an excellent account of his career by the Univeristy of North Carolina’s Carole Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (1989), a model of what an academic study can be, and a testament to the example of an heroic man.

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The nature of our intelligence is such that it is stimulated far less by the will to know than by the will to understand, and, from this, it results that the only sciences which it admits to be authentic are those which succeed in establishing explanatory relationships between phenomena. The rest is, as Malebranche puts it, mere “polymathy.”


ALREADY IN HIS FIFTIES, the historian Marc Bloch could have dealt himself out of the French Resistance. But he dealt himself in, and paid the penalty. The quoted sentence is the kind of wide-ranging, narrow-focusing idea from Bloch which makes the reader, even at this distance, grieve for his loss as if bereaved of a loved one. If Bloch had not sacrificed himself, he would have had an incalculable but undoubtedly civilizing effect on the post-war intellectual life of France—a life whose sophistication and global influence were attained at the high price of a surreptitious retreat from humanist values. It could be said that Bloch, as the founding annaliste historian, belonged to the bean-counting school of Braudel, and might merely have added to the future overstock of desiccated accountancy. But his subsidiary prose always promised something better. It promised a broadly human view, and had he lived he surely would have helped to sweeten an intellectual atmosphere turned sour by bad faith and fatigue. The literary critic Jean Prévost, who suffered a similar fate, might have had a similar effect. For both men, part of their lasting impressiveness resides in their absence, the tangible quality of an untimely silence, the depth and length of the If Only. Theirs are the voices that we miss. They were killed because they were Resistance fighters, not because they were scholars. In the light of that fact, their shared martyrdom was an accident, and not the result of a totalitarian conspiracy against humanist culture. But it amounted to the same thing. Both men resisted because for them the love of the European humanist culture that they themselves would come to represent was inseparable from their love of freedom. As true scholars, they refused to be drawn into the tacit, tentacular bargain by which Vichy’s cooperation with the invader was seen as a pragmatic stratagem to preserve the eternal France. They could see how that bargain attacked the eternal France in its essence. As true heroes, they were not content to keep their heads down until it all blew over: they guessed, correctly, that too much would be blown away.

So they fought. Prévost was lucky enough to die in battle in 1944. Bloch was captured, and died horribly. In post-war France they were further doomed to a long oblivion, and precisely because of the unequivocal bravery of what they did. If they had done less, and died in some other way except as warriors, their posthumous reputations might have flowered sooner. But the false heroes had too much to lose by the comparison, and those who knew better than to claim heroism for interior dissent were reluctant to be reminded that they had played for safety. We would all like to believe that acquiescence is inevitable in the face of overwhelming retaliatory violence. In Paris the occupying power devoted a lot of effort, skill and personal charm to persuading the French intellectuals that they could retain the luxury of a liberal conscience as long as they did nothing substantial to express it. If they acknowledged the inevitable, they could pursue their careers. The combination of ambition on the one hand, and ordinary human trepidation on the other, was so seductive that it conquered shame. The moral question posed by the judicious inertia of the intellectuals under the Occupation lay dormant for a long time after it was over, but shame was not the reason: the reason was that the shame itself lay dormant. Too much attention paid to men like Bloch and Prévost would have awoken it. Men of letters who had done nothing to resist preferred to admire those among their number who had done little, and safely late, rather than those who had done much, and dangerously early. The latter threatened to spoil the conspiracy by their mere existence. In the physical sense, luckily, Bloch and Prévost had no existence, and were thus deprived of a current voice to help remind the nation for which they had died that their spiritual presence was permanent. All they had was what they had written, and all that their writings could do was wait. The waiting worked, eventually. The sleepers woke, eventually. Their books came back into print, and then there were books about them. In that belated renaissance there is some encouragement, if small comfort. The heartening capacity of the tree of knowledge to replant itself in scorched earth does something to offset the depression induced by the spectacle of accumulated decades of bad conscience. The bad conscience was so bad that it would rather have undone its own culture than face itself. Paris, of all places, became the world’s production centre for new ways of proving that the critical intelligence can operate with no fixed connection to reality. Marc Bloch believed exactly the opposite, but he wasn’t there to say so: not then, not yet.

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Bloch went on to say that history must offer us a progressive intelligibility. For those with a vested interest in offering us a progressive unintelligibility—Lacan, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida et hoc genus—such a precept could not even be given the status of anathema: it could only be thought naïve. But in the naivety lay the purity and the robustness, and in the sophisticated mockery of it the pervasive malaise. Nevertheless, Bloch’s idea that understanding holds the precedence over knowledge needs to be cut up before it can be swallowed without choking. He charts a desirable hierarchy of epistemology, but it would be disastrous if inculcated as a precept. It is commonly and truly said that young people who want to set the world to rights learn later to be grateful that the world is not worse than it is; but if they were convinced of that too early, we would lose their critical effect, and the world would be worse still. Similarly, it is true that most of our knowledge will drop away after we have condensed from it the principles which will connect into a view, but the principles can’t exist to be extracted unless the knowledge is acquired in the first instance. Certainly the mind too impressed by knowledge will attain to nothing else. Ezra Pound famously said that culture begins when you forget what book that came from. Unfortunately he himself never forgot any citation that suited his mania, and his work as a totality is hopelessly vitiated by the half-witted diligence of the trainspotter. An edifying comparison can be made with Yeats, whose allegiance to the spiritualist claptrap of the theory of the Mystic Rose was at least as batty as Pound’s to the pseudo-economic quackery of the theory of Social Credit: but Yeats could develop beyond his early lyrics because art, for him, was a system of solid knowledge by far transcending his own fads.

For Pound, the lyrics were as far as he went. I loved his early work too much to belittle it now. At my first café table, in the Manning House Women’s Union of Sydney University in the late fifties, I read Polite Essays and felt that I was being injected with the ability to swim like Johnny Weissmuller, to dance with Cyd Charisse, to fly a Spitfire. But that first admiration was precisely the measure by which I found the rest of his career to be a tragic farce, and I think any honest critic feels the same. (I think Eliot felt it too, but he stuck by a friend.) Bulging with trifles passionately snapped up but invariably ill-considered, the Cantos are the wares of Autolycus, some of which, no doubt, were curiously interesting, but which meant nothing as a collection. Here and there, and for long stretches not at all, the Cantos have their beautiful moments, but those moments are wilfully beautiful, as if to admit that the dust heap needs decorating. (Even while the later Cantos were still coming out, there was an acute analysis of this discrepancy by Randall Jarrell, whose books of criticism, and especially Poetry and the Age, should be on the reading list of any student anywhere, and not just in his native America.) Pound vaunted his ability to make explanatory relationships, but it was the very thing he could never truly do, even though, like any other paranoid psychotic, he tried to all the time. Nevertheless he had the talent to demonstrate that to go mad for detail might yield something, whereas to go mad for generalization leads nowhere. Pound knew less than nothing about economics, one of his favourite subjects: but he could describe a coin, having looked at it long and hard, although never with comprehension. He thought he could judge an empire by the metallic composition of its small change, just as he thought he could extract the meaning of a Chinese ideograph from the way it looked. In both cases he was too far from the mark for sanity. But if he didn’t get the picture, at least he could see it; and young readers will probably go on being excited when they are drawn into his emporium by the magnetic force of his conviction that the Thingness of Things is a destination as well as a departure point.

Pound’s was a philosophical urge gone wrong. Thousands of even lesser philosophers are always with us to prove that it can go more wrong still, by trying to form systems out of no knowledge at all. Admirers of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Wilhelm Reich were all under the illusion that profundity can be attained by embracing principles with no basis in science. The occult and the mystically profound are perennial short cuts to a supervening vision: a world view without the world. Extreme authoritarianism is only a step away. Himmler was a mighty devotee of cabalistic flapdoodle, and Stalin, had he lived longer, would almost certainly have demonstrated an anti-Semitism rivalling Hitler’s in its toxic fervour. The mass murderer is ever fond of theories that explain everything, and all the fonder if they can be acquired without study.

There is no reasoning someone out of a position he has not reasoned himself into. People are drawn into these enthusiasms by no mechanism that has anything much to do with rational thought. In their own minds, however, explanatory relationships between phenomena are exactly what they see. Bloch’s precept is fulfilled in every particular. But of course he meant more than what he said. He meant that the knowledge must be real knowledge, which means that understanding must accompany it from the first moment, and can supersede it only on the condition that its chastening memory is never repudiated. Had he lived, he might have expressed himself more cautiously. Hitler had already shown the dangers of leaving knowledge behind too easily, and at least one of Hitler’s victims, Egon Friedell, had amply proved that there need be nothing “mere” about a polymath, if the bearer of that title is one who exemplifies how the fields of knowledge are alive within one another, illuminating the world even in its cruelty—the cruelty that caught him defenceless, but surely not by surprise. Bloch, sadly, could not have been surprised either. He knew what he was up against. The drowning pool, the truncheon, the thumbscrew and the blowtorch: for an imagination like his, those things must have been almost as terrible in prospect as they were in actuality. But he risked it anyway. Appalled by the cost in mental treasure, we can even call him irresponsible, the more easily to live with his example.